As I listened to the political pundits argue about the “beer summit” that occurred at the White House yesterday, I am amazed by the debate as to whether President Barrack Obama, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Lieutenant James Crowley really gave us “a teachable moment.” There is no doubt in mind that they did. The only question is what they and all of us learn from that moment. President Obama appears, perhaps intuitively, to have utilized restorative justice principles when he suggested this meeting. The men came together in a “safe environment” to respectively talk about the harm that was caused by the others, the impact it has had on many people, and how to proceed in a positive way to help heal the harm as each of them saw it. Those are the tenets of restorative justice. People getting together in a safe environment for a difficult conversation on identifying the people who have been harmed (in this case by the others), identifying that harm and how can the “offender(s)” and the community look forward and work to repair that harm.
We certainly could see much of the harm unfold on the news and talk shows. Professor Gates, a highly respected scholar, gets arrested in his own home by a white officer. He (and many others) believes he has been treated unfairly because of his race. The officer, who with his fellow officers, including an African-American, believes he was doing his job because he is investigating a possible home invasion and has a man, in his opinion, who is uncooperative and verbally abusive. And we have a highly respected president, who usually is extremely careful with his words, announce that despite the fact that he does not know all the facts, that the police acted “stupidly.” Then we went on to learn that Lucia Whalen, who called in the suspicious behavior at Dr. Gates’ home, is now receiving death threats and being called racist despite the fact that she never volunteered anything about race to the 911 operator. We can then imagine the harm to the Cambridge police department, the African-American community in the Boston area, the family members of everyone involved and then of course the harm to the thousands and thousands of others who experience the renewed pain of some bad police/community member relations all over this country. We have some political pundits characterizing all police as men and women who routinely engage in racial profiling (never acknowledging that never does an entire profession engage in bad behavior so that the “good cops” are thrown into the same description as the “discriminating cops.”) Those kinds of comments not only demoralize police departments but also devastate family members of law enforcement officers. We have once again publicly displayed acts of racism (a Boston officer writing a letter describing Professor Gates as “banana-eating jungle monkey”). We know that the wounds of racism and profiling in this country are justifiably deep and painful. And we have a president, who is trying to focus on our national health care crisis, in part because of his own words, being embroiled in these events. There is not a question in my mind that this was an opportunity for all of us to watch and learn a better way to move forward other than our continuous name calling.
Restorative justice practices involve people who have been harmed having the opportunity to be heard by those they believe played a role in harming them. In our MULS restorative justice program, we routinely have victims, or family members of victims of crimes of severe violence request a meeting with the perpetrators (including murderers, rapists, and robbers) so that they can tell them, across a table, how deeply they have been harmed by what the other person did. Unlike the White House meeting, these dialogues can often take up much of a day. A victim/survivor can describe the pain that was caused and the “ripple effect” of the other’s actions. The offender learns the depth and breadth of impact of his or her actions on a myriad of people. The dialogue then often continues so that the victim can ask the offender about his or her life and how it is that this person came to harm him or her. What life experiences brought the offender to that moment? Most offenders apologize for their behavior. (We do not conduct these dialogues unless the offender admits at least some of the alleged criminal conduct.) Hearing about people’s life stories humanizes them and helps us understand (but not necessarily approve) of why others have acted in a certain way. From that place of understanding, we, as community, can better find ways to move forward in a positive way.
On a very regular basis, our MULS Safe Streets community coordinators, Ron Johnson and Paulina de Haan, conduct restorative justice talking circles in Milwaukee’s central city with victims, neighbors, police, offenders, prosecutors, church members, offenders and other community members. I have watched these groups of people weep as a Milwaukee police officer describes finding a two year little girl with a bullet hole in her forehead and quickly picking her up. He told all of us that the little girl took her last breath in his arms and that her death has haunted him since that moment. He looked at the others in the circle and said, “I never go to a call for a shooting without taking her with me.” I believe that there is no one who was there that day that still believes that “all police don’t care.” On another occasion, we had a gang member describe that when he was 7 he was sitting on the kitchen counter watching his mother prepare the Thanksgiving turkey. All of sudden tires were screeching and he heard the sound of gun shots. His mother threw him down onto the ground and then fell dead in front of him with three bullet holes in her back. He then was placed with family members in the Chicago projects where he grew up in violence. No one will ever condone what he has done, but after the circle a police officer went up to him and told him that he now had a better understanding of how he got there. We have seen officers actually go out and help serious offenders find employment after they have heard the stories in the circle.
Finally one older African American man told his story of calling the police about shooting on his street. He told them that he would be sitting on his porch in his white shirt waiting for them. When police arrived, the police pointed guns at him and told him to get up and then lay down on the ground. It took quite some time for them to acknowledge (without apology) that he was the person that had called for help. The police in that room truly got to hear what that horrible experience was like for that older man. That story telling and more important listening (and truly hearing) by others brings much healing and new understanding to everyone in the room and hopefully more sensitivity in the future. What happens during these dialogues or circles is that everyone present learns more about people’s experiences and perspectives. Invariably, people will see that in our humanness we are all much more alike than different. We all have had terrible experiences in our lives (obviously some much worse than others). People who hear those stories will often ask themselves, “what would I have done under those circumstances?” or “how would I feel about what I have done if I had lived that other person’s life?” From that understanding we can build human bridges of understanding that help “good and progress come from the bad.”
I do have some regrets about the way the White House handled this dialogue. I wish they had asked Lucia Whalen to join the discussion. She was an integral part of what happened and may be the only one who appears to have done everything right. Her voice should have also been heard at that meeting. She could have told them that each of their actions has led to more people calling her a racist and accusing her of causing national turmoil. Although her actions of calling 911 certainly set this series of events into action, she was just being a good citizen and reporting a potential problem in her neighborhood. She never volunteered the race of the men she saw and in fact when asked told the dispatcher that she was not sure of their ethnicity. It would have been good for these three men (including the president) to hear how their actions in all of this have made her life very difficult.
I also regret that the White House did not get a trained neutral restorative justice facilitator to shape the discussion. As good as the president is at bringing people together, he was not neutral in this incident. He was friends with Professor Gates and his words had certainly contributed to the harm from the events, particularly to the Cambridge Police Department. Although the image of the men sitting around the table in the White House garden was a good one, it would have been helpful for us in the greater community to learn more about what each of them learned from the discussion. Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley have indicated that they will continue to talk. Hopefully they will bring in the community into that dialogue.
When it is all said and done, it does not really matter who drank what beer. It does not matter who wore what to the meeting. But hopefully we all will learn from this high profile meeting at a round table (like a circle) that when people have caused harm to each other by having made certain choices or are in serious conflict, it is important for everyone to slow down, ratchet down the level of anger, accusations and name calling…from “racist, to immoral to stupid to evil to without conscience” and actually create an environment where people can have a meaningful dialogue about what has happened, how everyone sees the situation and how they and all of us can work together in a positive way to prevent future harm. If we can do that, then we are good students learning from that proffered “teachable moment.”